the grub street diet

Opening Ceremony’s Humberto Leon Is a Ranch Kind of Guy

“Cool Ranch is one of those things where it’s a special occasion for me.”

Humberto Leon, probably thinking about rice rolls, in Chinatown. Photo: M. Cooper
Humberto Leon, probably thinking about rice rolls, in Chinatown. Photo: M. Cooper

“Opening Ceremony is, at the end of day, kind of a sidekick to our personal wishes and desires,” says Humberto Leon, who co-founded the company in 2002 with Carol Lim. “Food,” he adds, “has always been almost more important.” After helping turn Opening Ceremony into — as our friends at the Cut put it — “a haven for stylish weirdos,” Leon will try on another look: restaurateur. He, his mom Wendy, and their family will next open a Los Angeles restaurant, Chifa, where they’ll serve both Chinese and Peruvian dishes. “It’s a reflection of what we grew up with at home,” Leon explains. Over the last week, he spent a few days in the Cayman Islands before returning to New York, where he made Japanese curry and Chinese borscht soup, fed his rice roll obsession, and visited a couple Park Slope favorites. Read all about it in this week’s Grub Street Diet.

Friday, February 21
I was in the Cayman Islands. We went because it was winter break for the kids and I’d heard about our friend Gerardo Gonzalez cooking at this hotel, the Palm Heights Hotel. I thought it was super cute. It was also Carol’s birthday, and the night before Gerardo went off course from the menu and cooked this really special meal.

I started my day with a Now Foods Fiber with orange juice. Breakfast was at Tillie’s in the hotel. I had steak and eggs, local sweet potato, fried plantains, a kale salad, and coffee with soy milk. It was super cool to be able to go to the Cayman Islands and be able to experience top-notch New York food in a hotel. I love the local cuisine, there were lots of amazing spots that we found, but normally hotel food is, you know, hotel food. Where I want to travel, and where Carol and I have set a lot of travel places and wish lists and where we’ve discovered young people, a lot of it starts from where there’s a food scene, where there’s a restaurant scene that’s opening that we’re super excited about.

Lunch was also at Tillie’s. I had the sprats escovitch and a romaine salad with an ice coffee with soy milk. Gerardo’s food there is super local, when it comes to the fish and produce, but with his touch. The flavoring is really him.

We were heading back home to New York, and at the airport I bought a Subway sandwich — tuna, mayo, jalapeños, and mustard — and Cool Ranch Doritos. I had those on the plane.

I’m normally more of a Nacho Cheese person. Cool Ranch is one of those things where it’s a special occasion for me. But I’m a big ranch fan, maybe because I’m from California. I’m definitely more for the ranch dressing with chicken nuggets than anything else. Except if I’m at McDonald’s, I’ll eat the sweet and sour sauce. Otherwise, I’m a ranch type of guy.

I hope this thing doesn’t make it seem like I’m a Subway eating guy. I’ll also go to a nice restaurant and eat a somewhat fancy-ish meal. But I think it’s all about balance, and I could’ve easily faked this out and wrote every top-notch restaurant known to man, but that’s so not like us.

Back at home in New York, I made Japanese curry chicken with carrots, potatoes, onion, sweet potato, and rice. I discovered this amazing curry mix in Japan that I’ve been using. There’s obviously Chinese curry, which is a lot more watery and I would say more of an Indian curry. The cool thing about Japanese curry is it has that really thick texture. I feel like growing up my mom always skimped a little bit on how much of the Japanese curry she put in, because she wanted it to be more Chinese. And I’ve decided to really make it more Japanese in my home.

Breaking down the meat is one of the first things I try to do. Chicken is a bit quicker, but I’ll do it with beef, too, where I’ll almost kind of simmer the meat for a much longer time. Then I like to throw in the sweet potato, because I think it adds that nice sweetness to it that’s different then what you normally get out. Sometimes, because I’m a huge fan of peas, I like throwing in peas, too. I love pasta and peas — I also do a really random dish that my mom taught me as an 8-year-old cooking for himself. We’d take a can of creamed corn, and have some minced beef and throw in peas and throw it over rice. It’d be a really kind of easy, quick cream of corn over rice dish.

I did cook for myself a lot as a kid. My sisters were teenagers by the time I was 8, and my mom always left out all the ingredients for me to cook. She was working at a cafeteria, she would call me and say “do this, do this, do this now.” Probably by eight, I was cooking by myself.

In the beginning, it wasn’t novel, like how kids are like, “oh I want to cook.” It was more like cook for the family, cook for your sisters when they get home. It felt more like a chore. But I grew to really enjoy it because I learned to do it my own way. I oddly still use these recipes. I have kids now, so I use the recipes for them. In a more natural way.

Saturday, February 22
I drank Peruvian coffee at home with oat milk.

For brunch, we went out to Bricolage. It’s really close to my place. For my Park Slope neighborhood, you get good experimental food.

Bricolage’s brunch, I will say, there’s something kind of magical about it. I had the pho bo, with beef brisket; the croissant French toast with condensed milk; and a Vietnamese iced coffee. Taking a Croissant and French Toasting it? And putting condensed milk on top? It’s kind of a next level move for French toast.

Also, they don’t do pho in the evenings. Brunch is the only time they make it. I’m obsessed with noodle soups for breakfast. I think it’s kind of, number one if you’re in an immigrant Chinese family — maybe this is just my experience — what you eat for breakfast is basically what you had for dinner.

My mom would do this thing where she’d make soup, then bring it to a boil at night and leave it on the stove top with a lid on top. It’ll sit for at least a day. In China, they didn’t have fridges and that’s how you naturally kept the soup from going bad. You can have it the next morning. It’s kind of like a soup stock that just continues. I’ve definitely followed this tradition. My kids love soup in the morning, and I found a place recently that serves pho at 7 in the morning in Sunset Park. Which, of course, for me and my nerdy Asian friends — I had to give them this juicy gossip, they were like, “give me the place now.”

For dinner, we got Wang’s Chicken. Which I think is the most hidden secret known to man, because it should be like Kentucky Fried Chicken’s rival. It’s so good. It’s kind of no-nonsense, it’s kind of for everybody. We got the Asian fried chicken with sweet sauce, the mac and cheese, coleslaw, and kimchi. The chicken is kind of Southern-style but with an Asian flair.It’s not trying to be like what the Korean versions are. It’s really just a KFC type of menu but with Asian flavors.

Sunday, February 23
I met friends at Ping’s in Chinatown for dim sum. It’s one of my local spots around there, where our offices are. I feel like with dim sum, you’ll go to a place down here in Chinatown and it’s a lot of staples. What you try to look for are places that’ll do something a little bit more special. Like Jing Fong will have their station for the turnip stew and all that stuff on the side, which is nice. It’s a bit chaotic in there so I don’t really love to go in there.

At Ping’s, I think the staples are good. The har gow, the shui mai, the rice rolls. Then you can also get fresh fish congee that comes out in a sharing portion, that’s amazing, and soy sauce noodle on the side.

We got a lot. The har gow, siu mai, steamed rice roll with cruller (my favorite kind of rice roll), pineapple bun with BBQ pork filling, sticky rice in lotus leaf, turnip cake, fried taro dumpling, shrimp and chives dumpling, peanut mochi filled with black sesame, mango pudding, and fresh tofu with ginger molasses soup. I think they’re willing to go the extra mile, and they have some special dim sum. Like the pineapple bun with barbecue pork on the inside isn’t typical. Places normally either have a pineapple bun or a barbecue pork bun, this is a fusion of the two.

Back at home, I made Korean galbi ribs with rice, cucumber, sweet potato, and Chinese borscht soup. The soup comes from this Hong Kong café type of cuisine. In that you can get a baked pork chop over fried rice and over the pork is cheese and there’s the tomato sauce which is really rare — I kind of call it Chinese lasagna even though there’s no pasta — and on the side you get the Chinese borscht. Which is not made out of beet. We make it with oxtail at home, then you have celery, cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, onions, and garlic. You boil it all down and it becomes what Hong Kong people call a Chinese borscht soup. It’s definitely not classic Chinese. It’s its own thing.

For the galbi, I called up my two Korean friends. Carol being one of them. She gave me her suggestion for what I should do, and then I asked my other friend’s husband, Dan, and he gave me his recipe. ‘Cause I do know that Koreans like to say there’s always a secret ingredient you put in your kalbi marinade. Carol’s was Asian pear, which isn’t that secret, it’s kind of a known item. She told me that I could do my marinade in an hour, and Dan told me that my marinade needed to be overnight. So I was like I have to do something in between.

I think maybe the pear has some type of agent that makes it cure quicker or makes it soft quicker. So I kind of got recipes from them, and they’re like, you can put Coke in it, to really break down the meat. That’s one secret ingredient. Pineapple juice could be another secret ingredient because it has a lot of acidity, but almost too much so it’s good for a fast cure. I had eight or nine hours, so I had time. I skipped the Coke, I just went kind of classic, and I used honey instead of sugar.

At night, I went to Tang Hotpot with family and friends. I make hot pot at home, so if I’m going to have normcore hotpot that’s where I’m going to eat it. If I’m going to go out and eat it, I want something I can’t make at home. I’ll go to a couple of hot pot places in Flushing, sometimes I like the New World Mall weirdo hot pot where they kind of pre-mix it for you. It depends on my mood. There’s hot pot in every Asian culture.

At Tang, they do cuts of meat that are super special, they do multiple stocks that you can get, I like that they do the one pot for two people shared, which is not that common. Normally you have a big pot for everybody to share. But I feel like when you’re eating out, especially in New York, you have friends who all have their own dietary restrictions. If you’re with a group of people, it’s a good place to go. If you’re a vegetarian or only eat seafood, you can do your own thing and not feel like you aren’t welcome.

Monday, February 24
I’m up at 7 a.m., so I’ll do a coffee in the morning at my home. By the time I’m at work I’m on my second already, so I’ll switch it up and have tea. For breakfast, I went to New Cameron Bakery. It’s right up the street. That’s kind of a classic breakfast for me.

They have egg tarts, they have the classic buns that every bakery has but they also have this warm section with this little grandma. They have these rice rolls that are pre-rolled, almost like grab and go, that are amazing, amazing. Nothing like the ones with crullers, at dim sum, or roast pork. It’s its own flavor, it’s super salty, it has minced meat and scallions. You can buy as many as you want. I will get two of those rolls, one if I want to eat lighter, then a milk tea with no sugar.

For lunch, I had more rice rolls. I’m obviously a steamed rice roll fanatic. I went to Yin Ji Chang Fen. I was really curious about this place, because it had lines out the door. For a while, it was insane.

The rice rolls are a lot hardier than Joe’s Steam Rice Roll. The place is from Guangzhou, so it’s from a different region, and it has a lot more stuff in it so it’s like a proper meal. It’s a perfect way of eating rice because you’re not indulging in that much, they’re just mashing it up into powder form.

I also ordered congee. It’s good here. Congee to me is the perfect late night, after you’ve gone out and partied, I love going to Great New York Noodle Town and having it there, too. Their’s is no fuss, just really good, hardy congee. At Yin Ji Chang Fen, there was a lady next to me eating toast with condensed milk — you’ll realize I’m obsessed with condensed milk. I think it’s because when you’re given it as a kid you become addicted to it. What’s not to love about condensed milk?

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